Friday, January 9, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 5) - and forward to 2009

Many thanks to Maxine Clarke for giving this week's postings a very nice plug on her always-excellent blog.  I'm not sure about Maxine's suggestion that I should post more often - some might say the opposite... But one of my new year resolutions is to do just that, so don't say you haven't been warned.

I thought I'd conclude this little sequence of postings by thinking about some of the stuff other than crime fiction that I've enjoyed over the year.  Interestingly, when I started to think about other fiction I'd read in 2008, many of the books that had made an impression - for example, Catherine O'Flynn's eerie What Was Lost or Sebastian Faulks's Engleby - turned out to be crime fiction in all but marketing category.   Taken alongside the growing tendency for 'literary' novelists - John Banville, Susan Hill, Kate Atkinson and even Faulks himself with the Bond franchise - to move into the crime/thriller field, this suggests that there's something in the wind, but I'm not sure what. 

I've also worked my way through a lot of non-fiction during 2008, much of it as research for the book I'm currently working on (more of that later).  But I thought it was worth highlighting a couple of recent reads that, in different ways, I found particularly inspiring.  The first was actually a re-read - and not for the first time.  It's wonderful book of collected essays by the novelist, Alan Garner, which was published under the title, The Voice That Thunders.  Most people know Garner best as a children's writer - we all grew up on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor - although he's not really been that for a long time.  His most recent novels, Standloper and Thursbitch, are very much aimed at adults, and are extraordinary creations.  Garner's never been prolific, but I think it's arguable that he's the most interesting English novelist working today.  The Voice That Thunders is a marvellous companion to his novels - a series of beautiful written, tremendously thought-provoking essays, at least a couple of which are likely to change the way you think about the world and landscape around you.  Sadly - outrageously - the book is currently out of print and second-hand copies seem to command absurdly high prices.  But if you can find a copy in a library, don't pass it by. (Incidentally, if you're looking for a tenuous crime fiction connection, Garner's editor for many years was Christopher MacLehose of the MacLehose Press, UK publishers of Steig Larsson).

The second is also a book of essays, though much more readily available.  Over the Christmas break, I've been working my way steadily through Clive James's monumental Cultural Amnesia, which he subtitles Note in the Margins of my Time.   Most are aware of James as presenter, witty autobiographer or TV critic, but not of his further incarnations as, for example, rather good poet or serious cultural critic.  This book focuses very much on the last of those roles - it's a massive collection of short essays each of which begins with a quote from a significant cultural figure (ranging from philosophers, artists and writers to Hollywood stars).  Sometimes the essay actually concerns the figure in question, but often the quotation is the starting-point to a wider ranging discussion.   The core theme of the book is the continuing struggle between James's notion of liberal democracy and the various forms of tyranny that would seek to stifle it.  The overall effect is to produce a unique cultural history of the 20th Century.  You don't have to agree with everything James's writes (I don't), but he always writes it beautifully - elegant, provocative, mind-expanding.  And the sheer intellectual enthusiasm is as bracing as a cold January day. 

I had thought about saying something about music in 2008, but in truth there wasn't a great deal new that excited me (I'm thinking of the popular stuff here - my appreciation of classical music, although sincere, tends to be stifled by my complete and utter lack of anything that could be dignified as knowledge.  I know what I like, though.)

Possibly my favourite album of the year, largely for sentimental reasons, was Robert Forster's The Evangelist.  Forster was formerly one half of the Australian band, the Go Betweens, alongside the late Grant McLennan.  The Go Betweens' music meant a lot to me, and McLennan's solo work meant even more (his album, Horsebreaker Star, is a small masterpiece).   In May 2006 - is it really that long ago? - I was on the train to London and opened a copy of The Independent to be faced, out of the blue, by McLennan's obituary, following his death from a heart attack at the age of only 48.  I'm not generally emotionally much affected by the deaths of celebrities I've never met, but this one caught me by surprise.  Apart from the personal tragedy for McLennan's family and friends, there was a real sense of artistic loss.  The Go Betweens, after a period apart, were back recording and were better than ever.  And now it seemed that McLennan's unique mix of the joyous and the melancholic had been silenced forever. 

But not quite, as it turned out.  While the Go Betweens were no more, and Forster had partly reinvented himself very successfully as a journalist, this year he finally released a new solo album.  Better still, it's not just a solo album because three of the songs were completions of work that Grant McLennan had begun before his death.  Even without the weight of sentiment that inevitably lies across it, it's a lovely record - restrained, heartful, deeply moving.  A worthy tribute to Grant McLennan.  And the high spot is McLennan's song, Demon Days, which Forster finished and sings as the perfect tribute to his late partner.  Even if you don't buy the album, download that song and give it a listen.  Dry-eyed, if you can. 

The other musical high points of the year were largely live ones.  Finally seeing Nick Lowe live.  Having the opportunity to witness one of Leonard Cohen's majestic performances.  Having another chance - shifting literally from the sublime to the ridiculous - to see the increasingly marvellous Half Man Half Biscuit perform (they also had a great CD out in 2008). Actually, there was quite a lot, now I come to think of it. 

So what does 2009 hold?  Well, little good, by most accounts, though I'm generally an optimist by nature.  From a personal perspective, The Adversary will be out in the US in March (with that great cover), and The Outcast paperback will be out in the UK soon afterwards.  I'm currently working on a new book which I'm hoping will be the first in a new series - I don't want to say too much about it just yet except that it's not set in Mongolia and, in some respects, it seems to have become unexpectedly topical. 

And, just in case Nergui fans are getting anxious, I've also got a fourth Mongolia book all planned out.  Although the books always develop considerably in the writing, I'm excited about the way this one is looking.  There are some challenging times ahead for those characters...

Anyway, a very happy New Year to you all.  Now we've put 2008 to bed, let's get on with 2009.  I've got a feeling it may not be so bad after all. 


1. Maxine said...

Glad to read that last part, Michael! Looking forward to the next Mongolian book. Some of what you write is new to me, but I loved reading "What Was Lost" last year. I thought it was a very special book and hope it becomes a classic. I have not yet read Engleby but the main character is an exact contemporary of my husband's at Cambridge, so it is on my (or his!) list.

2. Michael Walters said...

I thought 'What Was Lost' was marvellous - and it captured perfectly the eerie soullessness of those large shopping malls. As for 'Engleby', I enjoyed it all the more because it's portrayal of life at Cambridge was very recognisble, although I was there a little later.

And, yes, the fourth Nergui book is all sketched out, but I felt I needed to give myself a break by trying something different in the interim. We'll see...

3. Peter said...

Whether or not you post more often, you should see what you can do about making an RSS feed available to your blog. I’d like to be able to keep track of your posts, frequent or otherwise, and I’ve been unable to create a feed to the blog.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

4. Michael Walters said...

Thanks for that suggestion, Peter - I'd understood it was possible (but I know nothing), so I'll look into it.

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